French privacy law is well known to provide strong protection against media intrusion, even for celebrities behaving badly. We have discussed the outlines of the law in an earlier post. “Public interest” considerations in general do not justify the disclosure of “private misbehaviour”. The French law of privacy is seen by some as a more appropriate way in which to deal with the balance between privacy and freedom of expression. At the Gray’s Inn forum on “Gagging the Media” earlier this year (see our post here) playwright Tom Stoppard described Bénédicte Paviot’s account of the privacy position in France as “sounding like civilisation”.
But under the relentless pressure of “celebrity journalism”, things may be beginning to change, even in France. Last month the venerable glossy “Paris Match” ran a sensational front page story under with a picture of an 18 year old “escort girl” and a story with the headline “The Blues: the Prostitute’s Confessions”. The story concerned various members of the French national football team (the Blues) who had purchased the services of a 17 year old prostitute, Zahia Dehar. She was described, in tones familiar to English tabloid readers as:
“A Mediterranean beauty, with long blond hair [who] has been selling her charms since March 2008 … she told police she earned €20,000 a month”.
Franck Ribery, the Bayern Munich winger, is said to have bought himself Zahia for his birthday. “Paris Match” had the full interview with her “I do what I want, she said, I am an escort girl, not a prostitute”.
This kind of story (though, perhaps, not usually quite as sensational) is common fare for the English tabloids – particularly those published on Sundays. However, from the point of view of the French media it was both new and shocking.
Views differ as to whether this article is a “one-off” or is indicative of profound, long term, changes in the French attitude to privacy. The “Times” has an article under the headline “Tale of soccer sex sees French fall in love with kiss-and-tell.” It quotes Renaud Revel, media commentator for “L’Express Magazine” as saying it would not be long before French political leaders had to cope with British-style tabloid tactics.
“The old restraint is exploding under the weight of the internet, of the economic crisis and of our own changing culture.”
Both others take the view that fundamental attitudes are unchanged. In an article in the “Observer”, entitled “France loves sex, but not on the front page” Claude Soula, the media editor of the Nouvel Observateur magazine (and media blogger) reminded us of the many French sex stories which did not make the press at the time – Francois Mitterand and his two families, Giscard d’Estaing and his mistresses – and describes his “surprise and pleasure” at reading the “Paris Match” story. He goes on to ask what this means for the future approach of the French media:
So will this be the beginning of a great change? Will we begin a hunt for the mistresses of the powerful? Will we ask them about all the dirty secrets? Will we become like Britain? I’m not so sure, because what is so titillating about the Paris Match story is that the very young lady with her very blonde hair and her Algerian origins was for sale. What shocks us is more the money than the sex
He suggests that a few more sex scandals would be fun – and good for circulation – but concludes that it is unlikely to happen “It is not our way of thinking. Sex? Yes, we are French. But only in the bedroom please”.
From the English perspective there are aspects of French privacy law which seem over restrictive – in particular the absence of a clear “public interest” defence in relation to the activities of public figures. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument that the approach which begins with a presumption that a person is entitled to control publicity in relation to his or her own image is consistent with proper recognition of privacy rights (and with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The misbehaviour of politicians should be a proper subject of media attention but the “sex secrets of the rich and famous” should, we suggest, remain secret.